Department of Energy

The Department of Energy holds the unenviable position of being both the problem, and the solution to the Yucca Mountain war. On the one hand, DOE's cleanup problems at Rocky Flats, Hanford and elsewhere, which it inherited from other older agencies such as the Atomic Energy Commission, were naturally tied to the Yucca Mountain project and raised legitimate concerns about their ability to manage the repository study and design. On the other hand, because of these past indiscretions, DOE has bent over backwards to make the science at Yucca Mountain air tight and spared no expense trying to calm the fears of the public through in depth science.


DOE runs the Yucca Mountain project through its Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM), established by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. The organizational chart which governs OCRWM is presently as in Figure 10. OCRWM's responsibilities include the following objectives:

site evaluation: characterize and evaluate the Yucca Mountain site as required by NWPA and 10 CFR Part 960 to assess its suitability for a geologic repository.

NEPA compliance: initiate the National Environmental Protection Act process and prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) in accordance with NEPA and NWPA, to assess environmental impacts of a geologic repository at Yucca Mountain and whether these impacts are adverse.

pre-licensing interactions: conduct pre-licensing interactions with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as required by NWPA and 10 CFR Part 60; prepare a license application and, if the site recommendation is approved, submit the license application to the NRC as required by NWPA and 10 CFR Part 60.

repository/EBS design: develop designs for the repository and the engineered barrier system (EBS) appropriate to support DOE's site suitability evaluations; if the site is suitable, a license application; the NEPA process; and pre-licensing interactions with the NRC.

site recommendation: if the site is suitable, initiate the site recommendation process as required by NWPA;

[Proposed Framework To Facilitate Planning and Integration of the Geologic Repository Program, prepared for the Director OCRWM/DOE]

The first significant interim milestone was reached in December 1988 when the Site Characterization Plan (SCP) for the Yucca Mountain site was completed and sent to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the State of Nevada for review and comment.

The Yucca Mountain project has seen three key managers. Don Vieth headed the program in the embryonic years during the early 1980s until succeeded by Carl Gertz. Gertz was well respected by his community, but if he had any flaw it was that he had an engineers outlook and style and was ill at ease in the confrontational politics that had grown around the repository issue. Dr. Daniel Dreyfus was nominated by President Clinton and became the Director of OCRWM in late 1993.


NWPO, Senator Bryan and Nevada's politicians spent the decade of the 80s painting DOE as iredeemably mismanaged and unable to conduct science at Yucca Mountain. For example, in the 1993 position paper titled "Why Nevada Opposes Yucca Mountain" prepared by NWPO the agency referred to DOE's trust problem numerous times.

Nationally, the Department of Energy has major credibility problems due to mismanagement of waste and contamination at almost all defense facilities.

The GAO has documented radioactive and hazardous waste contamination of groundwater, soil and air at 124 of the 127 nuclear facilities managed by DOE.

The Department of Energy's credibility is so low, especially with respect to waste issues, that it is probably not capable of carrying out a program like the repository.

NWPO cites DOE problems at Hanford, Rocky Flats, Fernald Ohio and elsewhere and the GAO's estimate of a $200 billion dollar cleanup as evidence of the department's recalcitrance. One problem with this assessment is that many of the cleanup problems DOE faces are the result of defense projects which were carried out under the pressures of the Cold War and many of the projects date back to the infancy of the nuclear age when environmental concerns were not considered as pressing. At Yucca Mountain, the openness of the civilian project and multiple layers of oversight argue that it is unlikely to suffer from hidden contamination hotspots as older defense facilities operated under clouds of secrecy.

To further address the problem of trust, Secretary of Energy Watkins under the Bush Administration, created the Task Force on Radioactive Waste Management which specifically addressed this issue of trust and ways to improve it [see "Earning Public Trust and Confidence: Requisites for Managing Radioactive Waste", Task Force on Radioactive Waste Management, 1993]. Among the many Task Forces' recommendations are:

Requiring local residence for all employee, contractor personnel, and National Laboratory scientists who spend the majority of their time working at the site.

Involving stakeholders in the process of selecting external peer reviewers.

Favor local industries and firms as sources for supplying goods and services to the program.

Aim to design a repository system whose predictable performance exceeds by a substantial margin the standards set up by regulators.

Develop contingency plans should Yucca Mountain prove unsuitable for a repository.

The Task Force on Radioactive Waste Management has been a good faith effort to address DOE's credibility problems. An interesting question is why the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office should not be subject to these same trust enhancing rules.


While DOE seems as a whole to be carrying out a safe program of characterization at Yucca Mountain, this does not mean it is without critics. Indeed, it is possible to argue that large government agencies are structurally incapable of conducting efficient science and industry. One notable whistleblower was Quality Assurance specialist Don Brown who claims quality assurance measures at Yucca Mountain were often overlooked (Brown was dismissed from DOE but later settled for an undisclosed sum. Another prominent critic was general Joel Hall:

"There has been no objective evaluation of this mountain. This is an analytical scam," said retired Air Force Brigadier General Joel T. Hall, a former deputy commander of NATO's 5th Allied Tactical Air Force who worked for DOE as one of its major contractor employees. . . . In letters to Watkins, Hall said, "What is happening here is the development of tailored data, data files, computer models, and analysis to support and validate the selected the selected conclusion that Yucca Mountain is suitable for a repository.

It is wholly unrealistic to expect the Department of Energy to spend $6.5 billion characterizing" Yucca Mountain and then simply walk away after serious flaws are found.

Study plans and engineering designs strongly suggest that the DOE's site characterization program is, in fact, geared towards building the first portion of the dump, not merely "studying" the site as it claims.

[Lecture at UNLV, May 7, 1993]

General Hall's attack on the Yucca Mountain project is hard hitting and while disagreement exists about the validity of his analysis, his views have nevertheless been aired in public and are an independent evaluation of DOE.


Opponents often accuse DOE of being "schedule driven" in its study of Yucca Mountain. However, it should be pointed out that all private engineering projects are also schedule driven and that they nevertheless seem to be able to build skyscrapers, airports and other large projects without compromising safety. In part, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act drives the DOE schedule, but a case can also be made that schedules are part of good engineering practice because they force conclusions to be finalized.

Further, it may be argued that DOE's real problem is its bureaucratic structure which allows it to design Yucca Mountain as no private firm would ever do. A private consortium building Yucca Mountain would not only be under time constraints, but would also be accountable for bringing the project in under cost (so they could maintain a profit) and within safety specifications (as part of their contract fulfillment). Part of the strategy that would be employed by a private firm would be to minimize the risk that the entire project could be derailed by design flaws made in the investigative stage and therefore they would tend to proceed in an evolutionary fashion. In contrast, DOE tends to design in an all-or-nothing mode, not licensing until the entire project meets specifications. Attempts to make the project more like a private enterprise can thus have significant positive effects.

For example, in order to acquire subsurface data on the repository level, the DOE has two choices, to either drill numerous test holes into the area (as recommended by NWPO) or to conduct tunneling operations. Test borings from the surface to collect data unfortunately compromise the integrity of the mountain by allowing for possible escape routes for nuclear waste and they also delay final decisions on construction, perhaps indefinitely. Fortunately, DOE has begun its full scale tunnel boring program despite the inevitable claim that the construction of tunnels looks like the building of the site rather than characterization. Nevertheless, tunneling is the best way of investigating the properties of the mountain without compromising its integrity and leads to immediate practical data on site suitability.

DOE has been saddled by law with designing a complete finished project when what is really needed is an evolutionary process in which technical problems are resolved over a period of time through decisive action not encumbered by bureaucratic red tape. Removing the roadblocks to quality science and practical site engineering is more critical than restoring levels of trust than public relations window washing. Freedom to take decisive action is important because DOE needs to resolve a number technical questions which impact the final design

1) What should the repository look like if it is never to be closed?

2) Will test tunnels be followed by immediate emplacement of test canisters?

3) Will the Multi Purpose Cask concept before committing entire program.

4) Will an MRS facility be part of the project?

5) How might engineered barriers. enhance the safety of the site?

6) What provisions need to be taken to implement long term monitoring?